Orlando Sentinel
May 23, 2008

Obama risks losing Florida over Cuba stance

George Diaz


Postcards from Florida on the presidential campaign trail:

Republican candidate John McCain visits La Casa del Preso ("House of the Prisoner") in Miami's Little Havana, a museum dedicated to those who have died while incarcerated in Cuba. Earlier, McCain holds up a pair of guayabera shirts given to him during a rally, at which he pledges that he won't talk with the Castro regime until it embraces political reforms.

Democratic hopeful Barack Obama swings through the Interstate 4 corridor and makes a stop in Kissimmee for a town-hall meeting to try to reach out to Hispanics. About 1,500 people attend. Obama closes the day with a private fundraiser in Maitland that brings in about $475,000.

Cha-ching matters, as do our neighbors in Kissimmee and Maitland, but political scorecard and strategy strongly favor McCain to win Florida.

Research shows a 49 percent Hispanic voter turnout -- mostly Puerto Rican -- in Osceola County in 2004. In the Cuban heartland of Miami-Dade, that number was 70 percent.

Obama is already campaigning in Florida under challenging circumstances because of a Democratic boycott of the state primaries. Now comes the philosophical bind:

By taking a moderate approach toward Cuba, Obama marginalizes his relevance in Florida.

Whether or not the economic embargo is a paper lion ripped with flaws, pragmatic politics insist that you don't deviate from the script:

Castro bad. Embargo good.

All major presidential candidates since 1992 have advocated continuing sanctions against Cuba.

Obama said he would look at easing the embargo if Cuba shows signs of democracy, and also expressed a willingness to meet with President Raul Castro. Translation from South Florida: Obama is loco.

Cuban-Americans represent a critical swing vote, representing about 7 percent of the state's total. They helped deliver the 2000 election to George W. Bush by voting for him 4-to-1 over Al Gore. Bush won Florida by only 537 votes. It works the other way, too.

During the Bob Dole-Bill Clinton race in 1996, exit polls showed that only 46 percent of Florida's Hispanics voted for Dole, compared with the traditional 5- or 6-to-1 advantage enjoyed by Republican candidates. The beneficiary was Clinton, whose Cuban-American support spiked from 22 percent in '92 to 42 percent in '96.

Clinton pushed much harder for their vote in '96. He supported the Helms-Burton bill, which called for tightening the embargo against Cuba. He then cranked up "Guantanamera" -- a song whose lyrics come from Jose Marti, Cuba's iconic hero -- along the campaign trial.

Fast-forward to 2008, when the Obama campaign rolls on under the flawed premise that it can win Florida despite throwing away a majority of those Cuban-American votes.

The good news for Obama is that non-Cuban Hispanics traditionally vote Democratic. The party now has more registered Hispanic voters than Republicans in Florida. And that embargo obsession is fading as the older generation of Cuban-Americans is replaced by those more open to diplomatic dialogue.

Obama will walk that political tightrope when he is scheduled to speak today to the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami. That group, traditionally hard-line, is now taking a more moderate stance. Still, you have to account for everybody in the room.

In the big-picture scheme of things, I would consider Obama's answers on health care, housing and Iraq more significant than his position on Cuba. But I would keep a guayabera in the closet just in case.